BY JESSICA PUCKETT - October 16, 2023 - https://www.cntraveler.com/story/state-department-...
On Thursday, October 19, the US State Department issued a worldwide travel advisory urging American citizens to “exercise increased caution” while overseas, “due to increased tensions in various locations around the world, the potential for terrorist attacks, [and] demonstrations or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests.”
The alert comes as the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas escalates in the Middle East. According to the New York Times, the advisory is also in response to protests worldwide that have, in some cases, led to “violent clashes at U.S. diplomatic compounds.” Throughout this week, protesters all over the world have held demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, calling for an end to Israel’s airstrikes and blockade of the territory, according to the AP. There are also protests in New York City calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, and in Washington, DC calling for President Biden to press for an Israel-Hamas war cease-fire.
But what does the State Department's warning mean for anyone currently traveling, or with an upcoming trip? And does it actually suggest that you shouldn't travel… at all?
The short answer is no. But the advisory is a fair reminder to do exactly as it instructs, which is, for the time being, to be cautious while in environments unfamiliar to you.
“I don’t think the advisory is asking people to cancel their planned travel, but it is asking us all to be more alert when we are traveling,” says Mei Zhang, founder of the travel company WildChina and a member of Condé Nast Traveler’s Global Advisory Board. “To me, that means being more alert in airports, avoiding super crowded iconic tourist places, not having your eyes glued to your phone while traveling. Look around.” As a precaution, Zhang recommends signing up for the State Department’s STEP program, as well as keeping your friends and family informed of your travel plans. “Just take a little extra caution,” she says. “This is a good idea regardless of the warning.”
As for changing travel plans, Catherine Heald, the co-founder and CEO of the travel company Remote Lands, says that many of her clients have canceled their upcoming travel plans to Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, among others, and pivoted their trips toward destinations geographically far away from active conflict zones. (Read more about navigating upcoming travel to countries bordering Israel and Gaza here.)
While reconsidering itineraries, Heald advises all travelers to not panic: “Look at the facts,” Heald says. “Study a map and avoid the danger zones. Buy travel insurance so if the situation spreads or escalates—and we all sincerely hope it won’t—you are covered.”
Luis Vargas, CEO and founder of travel operator Modern Adventure, recommends equipping yourself with information. Read up on the local news in the area of your intended destination to get a better sense of what’s actually happening on the ground. “In many cases, major events—both political and natural—are locally or regionally concentrated, meaning nearby areas can be unaffected,” Vargas says. For example, during and in the aftermath of the earthquake in Morocco in September, some communities experienced the worst of it, while Marrakech and other parts of the country were largely unaffected. An event in one part of a country or region does not mean it is happening everywhere in that country or region.
The last time the State Department issued a similar worldwide travel advisory was on August 2, 2022, due to a "higher potential for anti-American violence given the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the al-Qaeda leader killed on July 31 in a US drone strike in Afghanistan.
The US State Department’s travel advisories are most often specified by country. This month, the State Department has raised the travel advisory for Lebanon to the highest level, “Level 4: Do not travel;” the travel advisory for Israel and the West Bank has been raised to “Level 3: Reconsider travel.” Jordan and Egypt, which share borders with Israel, are at Level 2 and Level 3, respectively.
Wherever you are headed, take stock of a number of factors before you cancel or reschedule any travel plans: Consider your destination’s relative risk and your own personal risk tolerance—and that of your travel companions. Evaluate the level of access you will have to consulate services and information, as well as to your own personal safety network; if you have friends and family in the area of your destination, ask them for tips on how to stay safe and up-to-date on local news developments.
From there, make an informed decision about your travel plans that you—and your travel companions, if you have them—will be comfortable with. Traveling is an exercise in preparedness. As with all trips, make sure you feel ready to navigate whatever may come your way, no matter where you go. And of course, follow the worldwide travel advisory’s directive, brief and broad as it may be, to “stay alert in locations frequented by tourists” and to “enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive information and alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency overseas.”
Taking a long-term view, Vargas offers a reminder that tourism is an integral part of many economies—in the Middle East and all over the world. "When travel advisories are adopted, more broadly than intended, the effects can also be devastating over time,” says Vargas. If you aren't comfortable traveling now, consider postponing your trip rather than canceling it; and, if you must cancel, see if you can redirect some of your financial resources to organizations offering aid to people who need it most.
At the end of the day, “trust your gut,” Vargas says. “If you are feeling uneasy to the point where enjoyment of the trip is compromised, postponing may be the right choice for you.”
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